A Midsummer Knight's Dream by O. Henry
"The knights are dead;
Their swords are rust.
Except a few who have to hust-
Le all the time
To raise the dust."
It was summertime. The sun glared down upon the city
with pitiless ferocity. It is difficult for the sun to be ferocious
and exhibit compunction simultaneously. The heat was—oh, bother
thermometers!—who cares for standard measures, anyhow? It was so hot
The roof gardens put on so many extra waiters that you could hope to
get your gin fizz now—as soon as all the other people got theirs.
The hospitals were putting in extra cots for bystanders. For when
little, woolly dogs loll their tongues out and say "woof, woof!" at
the fleas that bite 'em, and nervous old black bombazine ladies
screech "Mad dog!" and policemen begin to shoot, somebody is going
to get hurt. The man from Pompton, N.J., who always wears an
overcoat in July, had turned up in a Broadway hotel drinking hot
Scotches and enjoying his annual ray from the calcium.
Philanthropists were petitioning the Legislature to pass a bill
requiring builders to make tenement fire-escapes more commodious, so
that families might die all together of the heat instead of one or
two at a time. So many men were telling you about the number of
baths they took each day that you wondered how they got along after
the real lessee of the apartment came back to town and thanked 'em
for taking such good care of it. The young man who called loudly for
cold beef and beer in the restaurant, protesting that roast pullet
and Burgundy was really too heavy for such weather, blushed when he
met your eye, for you had heard him all winter calling, in modest
tones, for the same ascetic viands. Soup, pocketbooks, shirt waists,
actors and baseball excuses grew thinner. Yes, it was summertime.
A man stood at Thirty-fourth street waiting for a downtown car. A
man of forty, gray-haired, pink-faced, keen, nervous, plainly
dressed, with a harassed look around the eyes. He wiped his forehead
and laughed loudly when a fat man with an outing look stopped and
spoke with him.
"No, siree," he shouted with defiance and scorn. "None of your old
mosquito-haunted swamps and skyscraper mountains without elevators
for me. When I want to get away from hot weather I know how to do
it. New York, sir, is the finest summer resort in the country. Keep
in the shade and watch your diet, and don't get too far away from an
electric fan. Talk about your Adirondacks and your Catskills!
There's more solid comfort in the borough of Manhattan than in all
the rest of the country together. No, siree! No tramping up
perpendicular cliffs and being waked up at 4 in the morning by a
million flies, and eating canned goods straight from the city for
me. Little old New York will take a few select summer boarders;
comforts and conveniences of homes—that's the ad. that I answer
"You need a vacation," said the fat man, looking closely at the
other. "You haven't been away from town in years. Better come with
me for two weeks, anyhow. The trout in the Beaverkill are jumping at
anything now that looks like a fly. Harding writes me that he landed
a three-pound brown last week."
"Nonsense!" cried the other man. "Go ahead, if you like, and boggle
around in rubber boots wearing yourself out trying to catch fish.
When I want one I go to a cool restaurant and order it. I laugh at
you fellows whenever I think of you hustling around in the heat in
the country thinking you are having a good time. For me Father
Knickerbocker's little improved farm with the big shady lane running
through the middle of it."
The fat man sighed over his friend and went his way. The man who
thought New York was the greatest summer resort in the country
boarded a car and went buzzing down to his office. On the way he
threw away his newspaper and looked up at a ragged patch of sky
above the housetops.
"Three pounds!" he muttered, absently. "And Harding isn't a liar. I
believe, if I could—but it's impossible—they've got to have another
month—another month at least."
In his office the upholder of urban midsummer joys dived,
headforemost, into the swimming pool of business. Adkins, his clerk,
came and added a spray of letters, memoranda and telegrams.
At 5 o'clock in the afternoon the busy man leaned back in his office
chair, put his feet on the desk and mused aloud:
"I wonder what kind of bait Harding used."
She was all in white that day; and thereby Compton lost a bet to
Gaines. Compton had wagered she would wear light blue, for she knew
that was his favorite color, and Compton was a millionaire's son,
and that almost laid him open to the charge of betting on a sure
thing. But white was her choice, and Gaines held up his head with
twenty-five's lordly air.
The little summer hotel in the mountains had a lively crowd that
year. There were two or three young college men and a couple of
artists and a young naval officer on one side. On the other there
were enough beauties among the young ladies for the correspondent of
a society paper to refer to them as a "bevy." But the moon among the
stars was Mary Sewell. Each one of the young men greatly desired to
arrange matters so that he could pay her millinery bills, and fix
the furnace, and have her do away with the "Sewell" part of her name
forever. Those who could stay only a week or two went away hinting
at pistols and blighted hearts. But Compton stayed like the
mountains themselves, for he could afford it. And Gaines stayed
because he was a fighter and wasn't afraid of millionaire's sons,
and—well, he adored the country.
"What do you think, Miss Mary?" he said once. "I knew a duffer in
New York who claimed to like it in the summer time. Said you could
keep cooler there than you could in the woods. Wasn't he an awful
silly? I don't think I could breathe on Broadway after the 1st of
"Mamma was thinking of going back week after next," said Miss Mary
with a lovely frown.
"But when you think of it," said Gaines, "there are lots of jolly
places in town in the summer. The roof gardens, you know, and
the—er—the roof gardens."
Deepest blue was the lake that day—the day when they had the mock
tournament, and the men rode clumsy farm horses around in a glade in
the woods and caught curtain rings on the end of a lance. Such fun!
Cool and dry as the finest wine came the breath of the shadowed
forest. The valley below was a vision seen through an opal haze. A
white mist from hidden falls blurred the green of a hand's breadth
of tree tops half-way down the gorge. Youth made merry hand-in-hand
with young summer. Nothing on Broadway like that.
The villagers gathered to see the city folks pursue their mad
drollery. The woods rang with the laughter of pixies and naiads and
sprites. Gaines caught most of the rings. His was the privilege to
crown the queen of the tournament. He was the conquering knight—as
far as the rings went. On his arm he wore a white scarf. Compton
wore light blue. She had declared her preference for blue, but she
wore white that day.
Gaines looked about for the queen to crown her. He heard her merry
laugh, as if from the clouds. She had slipped away and climbed
Chimney Rock, a little granite bluff, and stood there, a white fairy
among the laurels, fifty feet above their heads.
Instantly he and Compton accepted the implied challenge. The bluff
was easily mounted at the rear, but the front offered small hold to
hand or foot. Each man quickly selected his route and began to
climb, A crevice, a bush, a slight projection, a vine or tree
branch—all of these were aids that counted in the race. It was all
foolery—there was no stake; but there was youth in it, cross reader,
and light hearts, and something else that Miss Clay writes so
Gaines gave a great tug at the root of a laurel and pulled himself
to Miss Mary's feet. On his arm he carried the wreath of roses; and
while the villagers and summer boarders screamed and applauded below
he placed it on the queen's brow.
"You are a gallant knight," said Miss Mary.
"If I could be your true knight always," began Gaines, but Miss Mary
laughed him dumb, for Compton scrambled over the edge of the rock
one minute behind time.
What a twilight that was when they drove back to the hotel! The opal
of the valley turned slowly to purple, the dark woods framed the
lake as a mirror, the tonic air stirred the very soul in one. The
first pale stars came out over the mountain tops where yet a faint
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Gaines," said Adkins.
The man who believed New York to be the finest summer resort in the
world opened his eyes and kicked over the mucilage bottle on his
"I—I believe I was asleep," he said.
"It's the heat," said Adkins. "It's something awful in the city
"Nonsense!" said the other. "The city beats the country ten to one
in summer. Fools go out tramping in muddy brooks and wear themselves
out trying to catch little fish as long as your finger. Stay in town
and keep comfortable—that's my idea."
"Some letters just came," said Adkins. "I thought you might like to
glance at them before you go."
Let us look over his shoulder and read just a few lines of one of
My Dear, Dear Husband:
Just received your letter ordering us to stay another month. …
Rita's cough is almost gone. … Johnny has simply gone wild like a
little Indian … Will be the making of both children … work
so hard, and I know that your business can hardly afford to keep us
here so long … best man that ever … you always pretend that
you like the city in summer … trout fishing that you used to be
so fond of … and all to keep us well and happy … come to you
if it were not doing the babies so much good. … I stood last
evening on Chimney Rock in exactly the same spot where I was when
you put the wreath of roses on my head … through all the world
… when you said you would be my true knight … fifteen years
ago, dear, just think! … have always been that to me … ever
The man who said he thought New York the finest summer resort in the
country dropped into a café on his way home and had a glass of beer
under an electric fan.
"Wonder what kind of a fly old Harding used," he said to himself.